Once again the embarrassment of riches at Argentina’s disposal only led to one thing: embarrassment. This year’s Copa America was just another footnote in the 18-year-old history of Argentinean underachievement. Predictably many will see this year’s failure as further evidence to attack Lionel Messi for his inability to replicate his Barcelona form and single him out as the scapegoat. However much of the criticism aimed at Messi is unfair and the statistical arguments used to illustrate his apparent shortcomings are flawed.
The most obvious argument and therefore the one most frequently used is Messi’s lack of goals for the albiceleste. His failure to score in this year’s Copa and last year’s world cup, and indeed his overall scoring ratio has had many screaming that the little man simply can’t produce the goods at International level. Those who most vociferously champion this argument point to how he scores for fun for the blaugrana, yet has failed to ripple the net in 16 consecutive competitive games for his country.
However those who stubbornly persist with this line of argument fail to appreciate the vast difference between Messi’s club and his country. Messi is not prolific for the albiceleste because his main role is to create goals rather than score them. It is extremely difficult for any player, even the wondrous Messi, to be chief playmaker and goal scorer at the same time. The absence of Xavi and Iniesta means the little man constantly has to drop deep to be the main instigator of attacks, meaning the amount of time he actually spends in the final third is restricted.
Argentina do not have a playmaker in the mould of Veron or Riquleme, meaning Messi has had to take on the dual burden of providing the ammunition and firing the bullets. Sergio Batista’s reluctance to use Javier Pastore more frequently has further increased the reliance on Messi’s creativity. This is not an excuse, far from it; Messi has performed admirably over the past year as the playmaker.
Last summer he played an integral part in nearly every goal Argentina scored in South Africa and was desperately unlucky not to score. Brilliant goalkeeping and the woodwork prevented him from scoring a hatful of goals. This year Messi provided three exquisite assists and was his teams best player against Costa Rica and Uruguay, rendering him blameless for Argentina’s humiliating dismissal from this year’s tournament.
Nor should Messi have to be score goals for Argentina to be successful. Argentina have a plethora of striking options with the likes of Tevez, Higuain, Aguero, Lavezzi. The onus should be on them to provide the goals, yet each of them for various reasons have failed to perform convincingly on a consistent basis. The excellent Tim Vickery describes Messi as a devastating decoy, arguing Messi`s ability to take up three markers means there is space for the rest of the team to exploit. Unfortunately the supporting cast has failed to take full advantage of this, and Messi is unlucky he doesn’t have a Gabriel Batistuta to ruthlessly convert the openings he creates.